Rapid prototyping quickly gets new technology to warfighters

So why haven’t Defense officials applied it to acquisition systems?

Adapt or die. It is an axiom we all understand, but it’s not one that’s easily adopted, especially as it applies to Defense acquisition policies. We are living in a time when the rate and scope of change in the battlefield operating environment is, at the very least, spectacular. Yet the current DoD 5000 series acquisition policy, which compels officials to engage in a lengthy and highly structured process to develop and vet requirements across multiple organizations, can span three years to a decade, depending on the system being acquired. To work around this unwieldy process and field equipment much more quickly, engineering services programs have turned to rapid prototyping.

The technical approach to rapid prototyping is to divide a proposed system into manageable subsystems. Many rapid prototyping programs use commercial-off-the-shelf components. Engineers rely on trade studies to determine which components are appropriate for integration. Size, weight and power are key considerations. The team of engineers then develops a blueprint for producing the prototype.

Building off of the blueprint, rapid prototyping puts solutions for warfighting and intelligence gathering quickly into the hands of operators. With continuous feedback from the field, engineers can upgrade the systems with additional functionality. The process delivers an agile, rapid solution that is adaptive to new technologies and environments. And it does all this in a streamlined, easy-to-understand, cost-efficient way. So why isn’t rapid prototyping used more widely by government for acquisition programs?

The Need for Change

The core issue is that the DoD 5000 series was designed to support the acquisition needs of a government intent on creating capabilities that were “big, few, and expensive.” The systems produced under this model were ideal for use against the threats posed by monolithic adversaries where the time cycle of response was on the order of years. There are still many elements of the government’s acquisition portfolio that need the rigor of the 5000 series approach (with the very clear proviso that the process can no doubt be improved and streamlined). The challenge arises from the fact that we are not exclusively facing that kind of threat any more.

The new threat reality is one that is constantly changing and rife with unanticipated mission requirements. Many of today’s most urgent intelligence and defense threats come in response to actions from independent actors -- terrorists or even transnational criminal organizations capable of inflicting significant damage, and who can adjust their tactics very rapidly. To these adversaries, the time cycle of response is on the order of days -- they have clearly embraced the lesson of adapt or die.

The accelerating evolution of technology is another factor driving the need for agile, rapid solutions. New technologies, particularly from the commercial sector, are introduced to the market on a continuous basis. They offer not only enhanced capability but generally provide smaller, lighter and lower cost solutions. Current acquisition timelines result in fielding technology that is several cycles out of date and creates issues with logistical support. Open architecture solutions, which are technology agnostic, allow for incorporation of the latest developments and are inherently more adaptable, responsive and ultimately, cost-effective. 

Rapid prototyping is a structured response to warfighters’ need to engage a distributed enemy operating on a more focused and agile basis using a mindset of “small, many, and inexpensive.” 

Moving Quickly

Central to the philosophy of rapid prototyping is the ability to deliver 60 percent to 80 percent of functionality up front and fine tuning the remainder once a solution has been field tested. This approach works well with another real-world dynamic: declining federal budgets. As operating budgets fall while missions expand, we see the military services and defense agencies -- and the procurement systems that assist them -- being asked to do more with less.  

Rapid prototyping, with its focus on meeting the adversary head on, addresses a crucial requirement for the federal government to respond rapidly to unpredictable, emerging threats such as irregular warfare, terrorism, and international crime.

This process is already being used, although not as widely as is needed.

For example, convoys in war zones continue to sustain damage from improvised explosive devices placed in or around major roads. By equipping a small unmanned aircraft, deployable from a land vehicle, with sensors that can detect small changes on the ground, U.S. warfighters were able to discover signs of buried explosives and other related activity. This sensor mechanism, the first ever on a standard issue tactical military unmanned aircraft, has demonstrated the ability to detect IEDs and provide sufficient warning to convoys -- saving lives and protecting critical equipment. Without rapid prototyping, this technology would still be in the internal discussion stage.

Another example is the Wolfhound radio detection finder system. Wolfhound units were designed to locate ultra-high frequency emissions from the enemy’s push-to-talk radios. Wolfhound helps ground troops quickly locate the enemy and neutralize the threat of associated IEDs. This handheld solution is notable because it is lightweight and easy to use.

Rapid prototyping also relies on the commercial world for functional military applications. For instance, one program that cost about $100 develops 3D mapping prototypes of urban terrain for ground forces. This system performs in the ballpark of a traditional half-million-dollar military system.

Rapid prototyping puts valuable tools in the hands of troops on the battlefield and provides the federal government with a proven and cost effective means of responding to unpredictable emerging threats. Just as important, it can serve as a prime mover for much-needed adaptation within the acquisition system.

Lee Wilbur is a senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton and leads the firm’s business with the National Reconnaissance Office and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.